The Catholic University of America

March 10, 2008

Papal Mass Furnishings Taking Shape at CUA and Maryland Workshops

John-Paul Mikolajczyk (left) and Ryan Mullen stand with the aluminum detail - part of the back of the pope's chair, which they designed.

CUA architecture students John-Paul Mikolajczyk and Ryan Mullen didn't travel far for spring break. In fact, they spent most of their time off during the first week of March at work, helping to build the altar and chair to be used at the April 17 papal Mass in Washington, D.C.

The graduate students spent the week visiting aluminum cutting shops and wood suppliers and starting the process of building the furnishings for the Mass Pope Benedict XVI will celebrate at the new Nationals Park in Southeast D.C.

On the first day of their break, Mullen and Mikolajczyk visited EJ Enterprises, an aluminum supplier in Glen Burnie, Md., with water-jet cutting capabilities. There they witnessed the first steps being taken toward the completion of the papal furnishings. Water jets containing tiny grains of sand were used to cut through inch-thick slabs of aluminum that will form the delicate tracery patterns of the altar base, the pulpit base and part of the back of the pope's chair.

The student designers then picked up the solid white maple planks that they would bring back to CUA's woodshop to build the altar top and part of the back of the chair.

The altar top will be composed of a panel and frame system, much like an antique door, so that the solid wood panels can shrink and expand over time. The students are working closely with Ryan McKibbon, who runs CUA's fabrication lab, and Deacon Dave Cahoon of St. Joseph's Carpentry Shop in Poolesville, Md. Although he has built simple pieces of furniture before, Mullen says he's learned a lot from the two more experienced carpenters.

A sheet of inch-thick aluminum is cut using a water jet process to create delicate tracery details for the papal furnishings.
Cahoon is coordinating the fabrication of the altar with EJ Enterprises; Bruce Machine and Tool, near Ft. McHenry, Md.; and Black Rose Forge in Rockville, Md., which are handling all the metal work. Cahoon is building the base of the chair and the pulpit.

Five crosses in the front of the altar top will symbolize the five wounds of Christ. The design of the altar was inspired by Mullen's home-town church in Manchester, N.H. That altar also has a solid wooden top with a series of arches supporting it.

The top of the pope's chair will feature the papal coat of arms. The students are using a computer numerical control (CNC) mill in the fabrication lab to carve the papal seal into the panel. The CNC mill allows for engraving not only along an X and Y axis to create a two-dimensioned engraving, but also along a Z axis so that a three-dimensional relief can be carved.

The two designers were roommates in their junior year of undergraduate studies at CUA. Mullen said they paired up for the design contest because they were skilled in different areas. Because of his undergraduate studies in architecture and civil engineering, Mullen knows how to use Computer Aided Design (CAD) programs, which the duo used to design the furnishings instead of drawing them by hand. He also has had experience with building furniture. Mikolajczyk has a better background in the "whys" of liturgy and philosophy because of his undergraduate degree in philosophy.

The CUA students' designs were uploaded at a Glen Burnie, Md., aluminum supplier to be transformed into full-size metal arches.
Randall Ott, dean of the School of Architecture and Planning says the winning design "initially has a traditionalist effect but it's being constructed in a modern way. A rather massive altar top is over the base of a light metal tracery of web work that's like a spider web of metal. It's hovering almost like a quality of aspiration or hope. It's a fascinating mix of hyper-modernistic and traditional.

"To be able to chop through inch-thick aluminum with water and be left with a spider web when you're done - technologies make certain designs possible. This is probably the first papal altar on earth built using CAD technology and laser cutting."

"For the Mass at which the Holy Father will celebrate it needed to be not just good, but 'worthy,'" Mikolajczyk says. "A lot of newer technologies are meeting up with stuff that's been done for a long time. The base cut with water jets supports a wooden top built with dowels and no screws."

The benefits of the program have been twofold: Not only have the students won the honor of designing objects for one of the most famous people in the world, but they have also gained valuable work experience. Since winning the design competition, the students have met at least once a week with a committee to review minute details of the design.

Working with a client and meeting their specifications is something that a lot of architecture students don't have on their resumes when they graduate, Ott says. "If I were the hiring partner of a firm, that's what I would see as most important," he says. "Here is someone I can send out to work with a client.